50 years later, U.N. rights declaration largely ignored

PARIS — Fifty years ago, world leaders said "never again" to the atrocities of the Holocaust and drew up the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The tenets in the declaration, which states that all people have certain basic inalienable rights, have been supported by enlightened thinkers for centuries.

But in the time since the document was approved in Paris on Dec. 10, 1948, millions of people have been massacred in such countries as Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

When human rights activists from around the world converged on Paris last week to mark the 50th anniversary of the U.N. document, questions arose regarding what it had really achieved.

"Who could fail to be dismayed when we compare the reality of the human rights situation around the world with the idealistic aims of the Universal Declaration?" asked Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

"It's clear that inequities within and between societies are not diminishing but growing."

Amnesty International, whose representatives were present at the Paris conference, took out a full-page newspaper ad showing pictures of people being tortured, enslaved and killed.

Beneath each photo was a line from the Universal Declaration.

"Well, happy bloody birthday, human rights," the ad said. "We'd love to celebrate the fine words set forth by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. But they are words that could have been written a million times over in the blood of those who have been murdered, massacred and mutilated in the last 50 years."

In a sign of how difficult the situation remains, human rights campaigners from several countries — including Tunisia, Vietnam and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma — were banned by their governments from attending the gathering.

Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, delivered a videotaped message from her home in Yangon, where the Burmese military government has confined her.

"Please go on with your good work. Please don't give up. Please believe you're doing a lot of good," she told hundreds of human rights champions at the meeting.

Several personal accounts given at the meeting were reminders of the grim reality that persists despite the declaration's words.

Tears welled up in the eyes of Algerian women's rights activist Salima Ghezali as she spoke of the slaughter of millions of innocent civilians in her country.

"[Each week] there are more massacres," she said. "In Algeria, we will not celebrate this anniversary, we will only observe it."

While much in day-to-day world news bolsters the stances of the most inveterate pessimists, there are also signs of hope.

Former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet is facing extradition to Spain to face charges that he was responsible for the deaths and disappearance of 3,000 people during his rule.

The recent decision by British officials to allow his extradition gives reason to believe that perhaps some day dictators may be held accountable for their crimes.

Meanwhile, at a New York event commemorating the declaration, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky , now Israel's trade minister, took a "symbolic walk" outside the U.N. headquarters.

Standing across the street from the U.N. building, Sharansky, perhaps the most celebrated Prisoner of Zion, read from the declaration, which assures as a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations" basic human rights such as the right to a fair, public trial and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.